Last month saw me wheel my equipment to METRO’s 9th host institution as part of Culture in Transit. I didn’t have far to go this time, as I was situated at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in the heart of Midtown New York.
The exterior of General Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen, circa 1900
General Society has a long and very distinguished history. Founded in 1785 to provide cultural, educational and social services to families of skilled craftsmen, it is the third oldest organization in New York City. It opened a free school in 1820 for and also an Apprentice’s library – which holds the mantle of the the second oldest library in the City (it’s also one of three remaining private membership circulating libraries). The school became the Mechanics Institute in 1858 and is the oldest privately supported technical school in NYC. It continues to this day in providing tuition-free evening instruction in trades-related education – providing a unique service to improve job opportunities for New Yorkers in the building and construction industry.
The archives, with material dating back to their founding in 1785, have not previously undertaken any digitization of their historical collections. They did digitize a few key images for a book on the Society but no real digitization program has ever been undertaken. Early on in our discussions, we wanted to ensure items selected for inclusion in the project represented the breadth and depth of the Society’s history and we have ended up with an impressive collection over 365 items – a record for me in terms of amount digitized in a 10 day period! Items in the collection include photographs, pamphlets and programs of General Society events and museum objects. Also represented are items pertaining to the history of the City – there are some great pamphlets relating to the issue of dismantling the elevated railroad on Sixth Ave in the 1930s and the lantern slide collection concerns the history of the American Revolutionary War in the eighteenth century. They were used in a lecture on the topic and donated to the archives in the 1920s.
Ahead of time, I knew the lantern slide collection was listed for digitization and also a glass plate negative collection was earmarked for digitization. These types of materials are very common in archival holdings and whilst not by any means difficult to digitize, they do require certain equipment that can be quite expensive or difficult for an institution to purchase given their niche use. Folders, boxes and mylar are easy budget items to explain – digitization equipment can be far more of a hard sell to justify.
One of the lantern slides digitized. Related to the American Revolutionary War, the slides were donated to GSMT in 1928.
Our Epson V600 can digitize negatives but not the size of those the General Society had; the lantern slides were 8.5 x 10cm and the glass plate negatives were 35cm x 28cm. To ensure we could adequately digitize this material, I purchased an LED light box so I could digitize the material with our mobile copy stand. Photoshop was also an integral piece of the puzzle – I used it to turn the negatives into positives. The process was incredibly easy to do but is resource heavy – equipment and staff time are needed to undertake the work.
A glass plate negative digitized which documented the construction of the Queensboro Bridge in NYC – originally known as Blackwell Islands Bridge
We also purchased a macro lens for our Canon DSLR ahead of my time onsite at General Society. The lens purchase was not solely down to the negatives we needed to scan; I’ve been investigating different camera lenses for a while due to the lens that came with the camera having a significant curvature (simply due to the type of lens but this presents a problem when digitizing flat items as a curve can be introduced on one side of the item). The new lens eliminates this problem and also, in this instance, came with the added benefit of enabling me to produce really high quality, close up images of the lantern slides and also some campaign ribbons held in the Society’s museum collection.
A classroom scene at the Mechanics Institute, 1957
We’re extremely pleased General Society were able to take part in the project and to be one of our host institutions. They are the the perfect example of an institution we are seeking to assist with our mobile digitization service and a typical example of many archives not just across the City but nationwide; they’re under-resourced with no easy way to share their fantastic history and collections with wider audiences. We’re pleased that not only will their collections gain wider access through publication on Digital Culture, but once the collection is harvested and available on the Digital Public Library of America, the possibilities for wider access and promotion are endless!
There’s a lot of activity going on behind the scenes now to prepare the collection for ingest in METRO’s Digital Culture. We’ll be, as always, announcing the publication of the collection on Twitter in the coming months – so stay tuned!